Ross Gay’s fourth book of poetry, Be Holding (released in September 2020), delivers a sweeping interrogation of collective and personal history, paying particular attention to all the ways these histories blend together. It is a lyric meditation in the form of a book-length poem on former ABA and NBA basketball star Julius Erving (Dr. J) and his iconic, catapulting up-and-under move in the 1980 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. The best description of which, intentional or otherwise, belongs to Jim Carroll, from his book Forced Entries: “With basketball you can correct your own mistakes, immediately and beautifully, in midair.”
Dr. J’s aerial exploits become the associative catalyst for explorations as wide-ranging as pickup-basketball, photography, the slave trade, familial history, and flight of all kinds. Be Holding could all at once be described as an interwoven tapestry of ekphrastic poems and a lyric essay on the racial gaze. The book does as much thinking as describing or working in metaphor, and that thinking, along with Gay’s characteristic (often parenthetical) insertions which break the fourth wall, puts it in conversation with other works on the border of both poetry and prose, like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets or Gay’s own previous Book of Delights.
Gay begins with and continuously returns to the YouTube video of Dr. J’s majestic and still heretofore unduplicated play. We, in essence, watch the video, again and again, alongside him. And with every new viewing, we learn more about that play, about Ross Gay, and about the practice of looking, as well as history’s inescapable reach and perpetual effect on the present.